The political and social insight demonstrated in Paul Weller’s songwriting remains relevant 34 years later says Jim Duffy
I recall buying my very first album – Sound Affects by The Jam. I loved the colours of the LP sleeve, the pictures of gloom in black and white contrasted with bright lilac and the messaging on the cover – “From the Cradle to the Grave”. It was in fact a rip-off of the BBC’s sound effects albums. And the songs were so powerful: Pretty Green and Man in the Corner Shop taking a pop at capitalism and religion. And of course the acoustic guitar classic, That’s Entertainment. I can proudly say that I can still play it and sing the lyrics with as much enthusiasm as I did when I was 14.
Paul Weller was the main man in The Jam and his socialist leanings permeated their songs. He simply couldn’t stop himself from decrying the monarchy, the City boys and how the UK capitalist culture was working for a privileged few only… in his opinion. Throughout his time at The Jam, his music had a tough, gritty, uncompromising tone. He despised the elites, the Lords and the Ladies and posh schools. Indeed, Weller turned down a CBE in the 2006 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. In a statement at the time, a spokesman for Weller noted: “Paul was surprised and flattered, but it wasn’t really for him.” It was never for him.
His Eton Rifles track mocked the fact that being part of elitist clubs like Eton made it difficult for others less fortunate to get on. The lyrics “what chance have you got against a tie and crest” are cogent reminders of difference and none more so apt in today’s society. David Cameron – an Old Etonian – voiced his disdain at the UK’s lack of ethnic minority and black UK citizens not making it to the senior ranks in the services and the police, while institutions like Eton only have a tiny percentage of their intake from ethnic minorities. Some might also argue that the underprivileged white community might also feel a bit miffed that they are also not getting the nod for these top schools and universities. I’m not sure if it’s a black issue, I am not well enough informed to take a view, but I am sure that Weller was spot on 30 years ago and his music still resonates with Britain’s “haves and have nots” culture today. We do indeed have deep divides in society – the same divides Weller observed as he toured the UK with The Jam and wrote about it.
Weller was on the money on housing too. His album track The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong has a real go at the rise of the sink estate and the high rise flat – “they were going to build communities, it was going to be pie in the sky, but the pissed stench hallways and broken down lifts said the planners dream went wrong” he sings against the background of a Caribbean kettle drum melody. How poignant as the Red Road flats in Glasgow came down last year and more of the high rise flats in the Gorbals in Glasgow also fell. The government in Westminster is to spend £140 million on rehousing and tearing up planning rules, as it says these have led to gangs and anti-social behaviour. But, what will the planners do next? I’m not sure Paul Weller would have any confidence, but it might be worth Prime Minister Theresa May giving him a call to have a blether.
Weller’s most notable success was the No 1 hit A Town Called Malice. The bass playing of Bruce Foxton and the classic drumming of Rick Buckler accompanied by a high-energy organ made this a generational classic. But the lyrics are still as relevant today as they were in February 1982 when it sat at No1 in the UK charts for three weeks. I just loved a Sunday night and listening to it on the chart show on the radio – no iTunes, Spotify or podcasts then!
The song has a sparky uplifting feel, really anthem-like, but it talks about the bitter realism for some of the Thatcher years. Its working-class lyrics, “to either cut down the beer or the kids’ new gear – it’s a big decision in a town called malice” still haunt me. And yes today, people still have to make hand-to-mouth decisions with food banks everywhere. There are tones of optimistic hopelessness coupled with a realisation that this struggle is still being played out, while the new genre of politicians wax lyrical about “social justice”.
I don’t view Weller as a socialist who moaned about stuff just because he could or to make a few bob. He was a hard-working man with tremendous insight into people, society and culture. In fact, he was quite entrepreneurial. The Jam was his first start-up.
Latterly, solo track Changing Man kind of sums up his own journey and that of many of us as he says “I’m a changing man, built on shifting sand”. Things are moving so fast these days with the rapid acceleration of communication technology, changing borders, driverless cars, drones, refugees in Europe, fast-moving media and the thought of an entrepreneur in the White House (sorry – “Man of the Year”), it’s no wonder that Weller’s musings still make me ponder and cogitate on my existence, relevance and purpose.
Indeed, as he points out and highlights to me and you, “the more I know, the less I understand”, it makes me think hard about my hopes and dreams as a 14-year-old boy and my naïve belief that everything would be fixed by politicians by now.